Speech delay during the early years - advice for parents

Here at My First Five Years, we know how important it is to empower parents with knowledge about speech development. We consider speech to be one of the most important parts of a child’s development journey. It’s a process that begins before birth as your baby listens to the sounds around them in the womb! As your baby is born and grows, this development continues supports them to communicate as they use words to represent objects and experiences. Let’s not forget also that your baby’s language development is a source of great excitement for you, the parent; as they move from making sounds to the amazing moment when they utter their first word!  




However, with the above in mind, you might start to be concerned if you feel your child’s speech is delayed in his age group or amongst his peers. If you’ve had these thoughts, we at My First Five Years are here to help. In this scenario, it’s important to remember all children develop differently; it’s thought up to 17.5 % of children might have a speech delay in early childhood and many of these children ‘catch up’ [1]. 

Nevertheless, to ease your mind, this article will cover some frequently asked questions about Speech Delay in Early Years. We will also give you some ideas about how you can support your child’s language development, and how to confirm if they have delayed speech or not. Read on! 

Speech Delay - photo 2


What is speech delay in early years?  

Speech delay simply means that your child is not talking at the level that might be expected for their age. This could be that they are using fewer words or shorter sentences, or that their speech sounds are not clear.  

It’s important to remember here that young children’s speech is often unclear at first, so if your child has some immature speech sounds this does not necessarily mean they have a speech delay. 

As a rule of thumb, you would expect most of your child’s speech to be understood by other people by the time they start primary school. You might sometimes hear speech delay begin described as a delay in expressive language [2]. 

Speech Delay - photo 3


What is speech and language impairment? 

When professionals talk about a speech and language impairment, or developmental language disorder, they are describing delay or difficulties in all aspects of language. This could mean a child finds it difficult to understand what is being said to them, they might not be able to remember and think about the things that people say, use fewer words or their speech might be unclear [3]. 


How does speech delay compare to speech and language impairment? 

Speech delay is different to speech and language impairment, as it simply affects your child’s speech (expressive language). This can be difficult for them at times as it can be frustrating if they cannot express themselves or if their speech is not understood by others. However, a child with a speech delay is likely to understand what is being said to them. They will probably be able to communicate in other ways, so using gestures or by showing you things that interest them and is likely to understand what you say. 


What are the different types of speech delay? 

You might hear or see different terms for speech difficulties but simply put, speech delay is a delay in expressive language. This can be a delay in terms of saying sounds or words clearly, or in terms of the number of words used.  


What is the most common cause of speech delay in the early years?  

Speech delay can sometimes be linked to other aspects of development, but also at times is simply a delay in expressive language, this is sometimes described as, ‘speech delay of unknown origin’[2].  

Sometimes speech delay might be linked to other aspects of development for example a hearing impairment might impact the development of speech; global development delay (this means all aspects of development are not where they might be expected) impacts on speech development; development of muscles in their mouth, lips and tongue can impact on the ability to make sounds. Social and communication disorders can also impact speech, sometimes being linked to speech delay but also sometimes being linked to repetitive speech or unusual speech patterns.  

Speech delays can also be linked with the opportunities a child has had to listen to and practise making sounds. So, finding time to talk to your child with as few distractions as possible can be a great way to support them to develop speech.  


What can parents do to help their child develop their speech?  

If you are concerned about your child’s speech development it is a good idea to share these concerns with a professional who knows your child to seek an assessment and if necessary, individualised support. However, your interactions with your baby and child support their speech and language development all the time. You do not need to plan lots of complicated activities but try to make time to chat with your baby or child every day, with as few distractions as possible. Talk to them about the things that interest them and listen and respond to their sounds and words.  



Talk to your baby and respond to them, copy the sounds that they make and notice what they are looking at and make comments about that toy, object or person.  

If your baby has a dummy make sure they have times when they do not have their dummy in their mouth so they can explore moving their mouth, lips and tongue in different ways and explore the sounds they can make.  

Your baby will still be tuning into the voices and sounds around them, so if possible, have time to talk to them when there are fewer distractions around. Turn off the TV and put your phone out of the way if you can for this ‘special time’, then hold them so they can see your face and chat!  



Keep having ‘special time’ every day, when you have as few distractions as possible and play with your child. Comment on the objects and toys they are interested in, respond as they say words and sometimes add a bit more to what they say so they hear some new words, this is known as ‘expansion’ [4]. For example, if they say, “Car,” comment, “Yes a red car, brmm, brrm!”  

Give your child something interesting to talk about, this could be through having a walk and a chat, it could be by giving them choices so they need to tell you which one of two things they would like.  



Play games with your child that help them to listen carefully. For example, hiding some noisy objects under a blanket and making a noise, then seeing if they can tell you which object they heard. Or playing a game where you clap the syllables of their toys and they copy then pick the toy. For example, you could gather their toy animals and say, “Cow,” as you clap once, and “Chicken,” and clap twice. See if your child can have a turn clapping too!  

If your child makes mistakes when they speak, perhaps not saying a sound correctly or saying the wrong word, don’t ask them to repeat what they have said, simply say what they said correctly, this is known as ‘recasting’ [4]. 

For all young babies and young children, we would say, read lots of stories, say lots of rhymes and sing lots of songs. These give you a lovely relaxed time with your child and help them to tune into words and listen to patterns in speech. Talk to your baby and child about what is happening around them, and use interesting vocabulary so they hear a wide range of words in different contexts.  

Enjoy chatting with your child, and be reassured that chatting with them about things that interest them will support the development of their speech and language skills.  



[1] Zengin-Akkus, P. Celen-Yoldas, T., Kurtipek, G & Ozmert, E.N. (2018) Speech delay in toddlers: Are they only “late talkers”? The Turkish Journal of Pediatrics. 60: 165-172.  

[2] Campbell, T.F, Dollagahan, C.H, Rocketter, H.E, Paradise, J.L. Feldman, H.M, Shriberg, L.D, Sabo, D, L. & Kurs-Lasky, M (2003) Risk factors for speech delay of unknown origin in 3-year-old children. Child Development, 74(2), 346-357.  

[3] NHS Lincolnshire and Goole Speech Therapist . (2018). Developmental Language Disorder (DLD). Available: https://www.nlg.nhs.uk/content/uploads/2018/12/IFP-1044.pdf. 

[4] Pine, J. & Rowland, C. (undated) LuCiD evidence briefing: How can parents influence their children’s language development. Available at: evidencebriefingparentalinfluencedec16.pdf (lucid.ac.uk) Accessed on: 20th December 2020.